Marin County ranchers, residents debate slaughter proposals

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Efforts by the Marin County ranching community to obtain more local options for killing and processing livestock have run into opposition from residents who don’t want slaughter operations there.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors next week will consider language that would allow ranchers to bring mobile slaughter units onto their properties for cattle and other livestock. The provisions also would allow permanent, small-scale poultry processing facilities on farmlands.

Marin ranchers echo what their counterparts around the North Coast have long maintained: A lack of slaughter facilities in the region threatens to hold back the growth of niche livestock operations that offer grass-fed beef and other premium meats. Petaluma does have a slaughterhouse in operation for cattle and other animals, but for years the region’s ranchers have taken sheep, hogs and poultry to processing plants in the Central Valley.

“If the consumers want a local food movement, then the county needs to support it,” said Lisa Poncia, who owns Stemple Creek Ranch outside Tomales with her husband Loren, a fourth-generation rancher there.

But opponents said slaughter operations would bring in a host of problems for neighbors, property owners and the environment.

“It affects real estate values,” said Michael Schinner, a spokesman for Citizens Against Marin Slaughter. “It affects quality of life.”

County supervisors are slated to take up the matter Tuesday.

The county Planning Commission last month recommended allowing mobile slaughter units and also poultry-processing facilities that could slaughter up to 20,000 birds a year. The mobile units could be used up to three consecutive days per week, or up to 12 days a month, without the need to obtain a temporary use permit.

However, after hearing from critics, commissioners proposed to limit such operations to larger ranch parcels and not allow the practices on lands with a residential agriculture zoning. The officials also jettisoned a third option that would have allowed permanent livestock slaughter facilities on agricultural lands, and they specifically excluded the slaughter of rabbits at poultry facilities.

The supervisor’s decision will be watched by agriculture leaders in Sonoma and nearby counties. Farmers here have long maintained that reducing a ranch’s carbon footprint requires finding alternatives to trucking animals long distances to outside processing facilities.

Sam Dolcini, the former president of the Marin County Farm Bureau, acknowledged it’s too early to know if a mobile slaughter unit would prove an economically viable option.

“All we’re trying to do is have this option on the books,” Dolcini said.

A USDA publication reports the federal agency approved the first U.S. mobile slaughter unit in 2002 in Washington state. The Cooperative Extension, a network of land-grant university extension professionals, lists less than a dozen such mobile slaughter units in operation nationally for cattle and other livestock, including one in Paso Robles. Those mobile units require the presence of a USDA inspector to monitor the killing and processing of livestock. However, poultry ranchers processing fewer than 20,000 birds a year on their farm come under state rather than USDA oversight.

Schinner said the county at least should require ranchers to get a use permit for slaughter operations. That would allow neighbors to raise concerns at a public hearing about such health issues as potential groundwater contamination.

“There should be some kind of opportunity for the community to speak out on this issue,” he said.

In Sonoma County, both permanent and mobile slaughter operations are allowed on agriculture lands if the property owner obtains a use permit, said Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of planning.

In Marin County, disagreement remains as to what led to the current proposals, which are part of an update to the county’s development code. When that code was first drafted in 2003, it included a definition of slaughter and rendering plants but no further language on where they would be allowed. Jeremy Tejirian, a planning manager for the county, said he considers that an omission, but the result effectively banned slaughter operations.

Schinner, however, said the code’s final language reflected the will of Marin’s elected leaders.

“The ban was there for a reason,” he said.

Dennis Rodoni, supervisor for the west Marin region that includes most of the county’s agricultural lands, called the current proposal a “good compromise” that would allow ranchers to see if mobile and small-scale slaughter operations make economic sense.

Rodoni, who won election to the county board last fall, acknowledged some Marin residents are opposed to the killing of animals for food, but he said he wouldn’t be addressing that issue Tuesday. Farm animals in the county currently are being raised for slaughter, and his aim is to retain a local, sustainable agriculture sector.

“It’s how to do it properly and safe,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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